5 essential exercises to keep your equine athlete fit during an Albertan winter

The winter months in Alberta are a challenging time of year for horse owners to keep their equine athletes fit. The weather is colder, the daylight hours are shorter and other priorities (like oat milk latte dates and binging Cheer on netflix) make it difficult for us to keep a consistent exercise routine with our equine athletes. However, that necessity for a consistent exercise routine becomes even more important for the holistic health of our equine athletes during the colder temperatures of winter. Exercising your athlete constantly in winter will directly impact their overall behaviour, performance, training, fitness and all of those riding events that are "not until spring", are really just around the corner!

Here are some tips to keep your horse strong and exercising over the winter months:

Space your ground poles at various distances!

This is one of the simplest yet most effective exercises you can do with your equine athlete under saddle or in hand. Set up the ground poles at various distances, in pin-wheels or randomly and walk your equine athlete with an intentional rhythm over them. Your athlete’s core muscles will engage every time they pick up their feet over the poles. Core engagement is essential for back support, posture and overall balance. For an additional challenge - raise the ground poles by 4 inches on one side, or on both sides. If your equine athlete wants a break from the poles, use the negative space created by the poles and work on your backing up and lateral movements. We would recommend doing this exercise at least twice a week with your athletes throughout the winter.

Don’t have ground poles? Get creative! Use broom stick handles, use poles, use branches…anything goes!

2. Schnee Resistance

Targets: Distal Limb Stabilizers

Training Type: Resistance

Schnee, the German word for snow, is the centre of the game for this “Let’s Embrace Winter“ exercise. Resistance training, is a great way to increase strength, tone, mass and endurance of your equine athlete’s muscles. In this case, you will be using snow as your external resistance to engage contraction of your athlete’s distal limb stabilizers. This is a great exercise to try after a delightful 2 foot dump of snow overnight. Keep this exercise at a walk, with no more than 2 feet high of schnee, and start off modestly. This is actually a very tiring exercise, and you’ll see that your athlete will lose their breath rapidly if they haven’t done this before. Try it for yourself to see how tired you can get after walking even 5 minutes in deep snow. We would recommend doing this exercise once to twice a week with an interval timer. Try alternating between deep snow and no-snow strides at 1 minute intervals for 6 minutes. Listen to your horse, ensure they do not have any ice balls or packed snow in their hooves before or during the exercise. Also be weary of the colder temperatures. We do not recommend doing any outdoor activities or snow activities in temperatures colder than -15C.

Be weary of how cold the temperature is outside. Only do snow exercises in appropriate temperatures.

No need to pull hard, be gentle!

3. Side to Side Tail Pulls

Targets: Pelvic Stabilizers

Training Type: Activation

No need to pull hard, be gentle! One of our all time favourites, no matter the time of the year. This dynamic activation exercise is intended to balance and stabilize your athlete’s pelvic muscles during their collected and lateral movements. This is a rehabilitation exercise that has been studied and optimized by Dr Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, professor and McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan. To apply this activation, have your athlete standing as square as possible. You will grab their tail, and find where their tail bones end, and hold onto the tail just below that point. You will then bring that tail over 90 degrees and gently pull for “one-one-thousand” until you see their quadriceps activate, then release. Start by applying 10 pulses on either side, working your way up to 20 pulses on each side. We recommend applying this activation daily.

4. Forehand Dance

Targets: Thoracic Sling & Shoulders

Training Type: Activation

Get your hips into it, and dance with your equine athlete as you apply this activation! Another amazing activation, created by Dr. Hilary Clayton, is intended to help build balance and muscle strength in your athlete’s forehand. During the winter months, our athletes (especially those on outdoor board) tend to stand a bit heavier on their forehand, resulting in more forehand contraction and tension. Not to mention, when they are walking on slipperier substrates, such as ice, mud, and snow, their forehand stabilizers are required to be additionally engaged. So this is a perfect activation to help shift the weight from your athlete’s forehand to their hind end in a pulse-like fashion.

Apply some light pressure on the middle of your athlete’s chest, causing a weight transfer backwards, holding for “one-one-thousand”, and then releasing. Repeat. Apply this activation 20 times before you ride, ensuring they are standing as squarely as possible. Your athlete’s chest muscles will thank you, and you will feel more flexibility within this region.

5. Carrot Stretches

Targets: Cervical (neck) Flexibility

Training Type: Suppling

Pretty sure most of you are familiar with the good old fashioned carrot stretches. But nonetheless, we thought we would share it, as this is a very important suppling exercise intended to help with neck flexibility & forehand tension that is often applied incorrectly. The biggest factor to remember is that your athlete’s head needs to remain on a level plane in order for the stretch to be effective. Our favourite carrot stretches to apply are from nose to shoulder, nose to carpal joint (knee) and nose to lateral fetlock joint. Repeating on both sides of course. Play around with these suppling exercises once your equine athlete has already warmed up or worked. If you are already a carrot stretching pro, try holding the stretch in each position for 5 seconds, or even 10 seconds! This will really promote flexibility.

According to a yiddish proverb, “the wagon rests in winter, the sleigh rests in summer, and the horse never”. So, make this winter a great one for your equine athlete, ensure they get daily exercise and try out some of these exercises to optimize your performance in the winter, and ultimately for the upcoming 2020 season. What you do with your athlete today, will help them succeed tomorrow.

If you have any questions about these maneuvers or would like to book a performance massage for your equine athlete to increase their muscular strength and performance this winter, contact us by email at or via text at 587.435.1834.



***Remember that these tips are not a replacement for a proper training regime and are intended to be applied in conjunction with your current regime. If your horse is in recovery from an injury or you are unsure of any of these exercises and your horse’s limitations, please check in with your attending veterinarian before trying them out on your equine athlete.

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